The six games it took the Golden State Warriors to finish off the crippled Cavaliers in last year NBA Finals was both surprising and haunting. Leaving critics (haters) with ammunition to disavow the Warriors of their true brilliance. The obvious footnote of their championship season being, “If LeBron could single-handedly win 2 games without Kyrie or Love, than how can they win with them?” Well, the Warriors triumphantly silenced their critics, winning a record-breaking 73 wins despite the Spurs signing perennial all-star LaMarcus Aldridge, and the return of the Thunder’s scoring maestro Kevin Durant. Meanwhile, across the country in the starving city of Cleveland, the King, and his horses were building towards an explosive playoff run. Firing coach David Blatt, hiring former assistant coach Tyronn Lue, signing the likes of Channing Frye, overhauling their offense (and in turn defense), and ultimately building the experience needed to contend among the league’s very best.
Throw in Stephen Curry’s untimely-but-seemingly-inevitable knee injury, a 3-1 deficit against OKC in the conference finals, and the Cavaliers near-perfect postseason being scarred by two ugly losses in Toronto-- and you have yourself a great finals storyline. And that leads us to game 1 of the NBA Finals, which was, for the most part, anticlimactic. The Splash Brothers endured a rare off night, and yet it felt like the Warriors controlled the tempo the entire time. Yes, Cleveland went on some impressive runs, but Golden State never allowed the lead to get even remotely out of hand.
There was a lack of intensity on Cleveland’s part and a poor job matching the Warriors rotation by Tyronn Lue. Is it simply a lack of talent? No, certainly not. LeBron James is one of the game’s greatest adaptors-- ever. He can crash the boards, score like Karl Malone, defend like Pippen (maybe a bit of a stretch), and virtually play the point. And, you have one of the league’s deepest and most diverse cast of characters surrounding him. Shooters like Channing Frye and J.R Smith. Skilled perimeter defenders like Shumpert and Dellavedova. Great rebounders like Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love. And that doesn’t even cover Timofey Mozgov, Richard Jefferson, and KYRIE IRVING. So I don’t believe it’s a lack of talent. I know it’s a lack of execution. Some of it is personal, like Kevin Love’s inability to consistently score or Kyrie Irving’s bad shot selection. But, their loss was in large part thanks to Tyronn Lue’s failure to recognize his offense's shortcomings. Against teams with poor defensive rotations like Detroit and Atlanta, a run-and-gun offense works. But against the best shooting team ever, it just seems insane. And, just handing the ball off to LeBron or Kyrie and waiting for them to make something happen won’t work either.
In turn though what did Golden State do that worked, though? You can start by ironically looking at Curry. Yes, he had a terrible shooting night. In fact, he just had a terrible night. But, the Cavaliers were so afraid of letting him explode they decided to let LeBron James defend him from the second quarter onwards. That leaves Kyrie Irving to defend any number of players including Leandro Barbosa, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, and Harrison Barnes. Who all totaled a shocking 56 (of 104) points on 24/34 shooting (70.5%). Throw in Draymond playing like Draymond has all season (16, 11, and 7) and Bogut’s 10 points in just 15 minutes, and Golden State is really living up to their motto “Strength in Numbers”.
So how should Cleveland respond? Well if the GS-OKC series has taught us anything it’s that the Warriors aren’t invincible. They have a weakness, and it’s their lack of size. Yes, they have Festus Ezeli and Andrew Bogut, but Billy Donovan exposed their inability to capitalize at the line. So Cleveland should (ironically)return to David Blatt’s lineup, and focus their attention on half court offense, defense, and rebounding. Let guys like Tristan Thompson, Kevin Love, LeBron James and Timofey Mozgov crash the boards and create second chance opportunities. Move the ball well and let all of your offensive weapons attacks in a variety of ways. That’s how Cleveland wins game 2. And, possibly the series
I’m constantly asked who I think will win the series and in how many games, just like all analysts are. But personally, I don’t like predicting who will win. Does that make me a lousy analyst? Maybe. But to be honest my prediction, as blissfully hopeful as it may be, is to have a competitive series. I don’t want to see the Warriors step on the Cavaliers' throat and end LeBron’s hopes of ever winning that ever-illusive third ring. I want to see expert coaching, unpredictable adjustments, and brilliant basketball from the game’s two brightest stars. I want a real battle like the Showtime Lakers v Bird’s Celtics in 1984, Ali versus Foreman (III), or Captain America versus Iron Man (great movie). So hopefully Cleveland can aptly respond. If not-- then prepare for ring ceremonies, parades in Oakland, and lots of late night talk show appearances starring *enter Warriors players name here*.